Does the Beat Go On? A Vermonter's New Book Explains Why Beat Culture Survived the Beats
State of the Arts
Just a few weeks ago, on May 30, Peter Orlovsky passed away in Williston, Vt. The death of the 76-year-old, who’d been living in St. Johnsbury, didn’t cause much of a stir in the Vermont press. But it did inspire a lengthy obituary by Bruce Weber in the New York Times. To many, Orlovsky was simply an obscure poet. To many others, he was the longtime partner and “muse” of Allen Ginsberg, one of the last genuine Beats.
The Beats are one of those groups of writers that inspire fierce fandom in some and equally fierce disdain in others. Mention them in a group of well-read people, and some will groan, while others will start quoting “Howl” or On the Road.
Bennington author Bill Morgan, 61, knows all about that. Since he discovered Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry while attending college in the ’60s, Morgan has been poring over Beat texts. He spent 15 years in Ginsberg’s archives, helping the poet produce a comprehensive bibliography, and later wrote a Ginsberg bio. He’s the authority to whom Weber turned in the NYT obituary for the story of Orlovsky and Ginsberg’s first meeting.
It’s a story worthy of Oscar Wilde: Ginsberg initially fell in love with a painting of the young man he spied in a San Francisco artist’s studio. That’s one of many colorful pieces of Beat lore that Morgan recounts in his latest book, The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation, published in May.
In his introduction, Morgan notes that when he tells people he writes about the Beats, “I generally receive one of two reactions: One group will stare at me blankly ... Perhaps they think I’m referring to a whole segment of the population who grew up eating nothing but beets.” But those who do know the Beats, Morgan continues, usually know at least one of them well. “There appears to be no middle ground...”
The Typewriter Is Holy seems to target the first group: the blank starers. In a phone interview, Morgan says he “meant it to be an introduction to the Beats, an overview to get people interested in reading more about the individual writers.” While the most iconic Beats — Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs — have each inspired “25 to 30” biographies, Morgan says, there was “no birth-to-death book” about the whole group. He wanted Typewriter to fill that gap, “whether for Beat Generation 101 courses or for the general readers.”
Though the book’s target reader is not “somebody who knows all the ins and outs of the Beats,” Morgan notes that the recent readings he’s given at places like City Lights Books in San Francisco and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., have attracted Beat enthusiasts. He hopes some of the information he offers will be new to them, he says.
One aspect of the book that may seem new, or at least contentious, is Morgan’s thesis: He sees the Beats as a social movement, not a literary one. Their works are simply too diverse to lump in the same category, he believes, writing that “friendship held these writers together as a group more than style or ideology.”
And the “cohesive glue” of those friendships was the gregarious Ginsberg. Morgan reminds us that Kerouac coined the term “Beat” — referring, at least initially, to his generation’s postwar “beat-down” feeling. But it was Ginsberg “who created the Beat Generation,” writes Morgan, via his adept and tireless social networking.
Kerouac rejected such buzzwords: In his mind, by the 1950s the “Beat” moment was over. But Ginsberg had taken enough day jobs in market research to know that “a group of people would command more attention, more ‘shelf space,’ and possibly even more respect than a gaggle of individual writers competing for recognition,” Morgan writes. In short, Ginsberg embraced the “Beat Generation” label as a branding tool — a brilliant one.
That’s not to say Morgan sees Beat writing as all hype. While he doesn’t quote passages or do literary criticism, he does write movingly of his favorite works, such as Ginsberg’s long tribute to his deceased mother, “Kaddish.”
Today, it may be hard to imagine the revolutionary impact words could have in the ’50s. The Beats were catapulted to fame by their defiance of the censors — specifically, by the well-publicized obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing and selling Ginsberg’s “Howl.”
But Morgan doesn’t think literary rebellion is played out. “The world actually needs some poets and people like the Beats to come around now, when we’re becoming more conservative and scared of everything,” he says in our interview. While publishers no longer fear prosecution for printing works like “Howl,” Morgan notes, political correctness encourages self-censorship. So does the current “family-friendly” slant of the Federal Communications Commission. “For 25 years,” says Morgan, “Allen was able to read his poetry on the airwaves with no censorship. I couldn’t go on a radio station now and read [“Howl”]. They would be fined an enormous amount of money by the FCC. Censorship is actually more powerful today in some ways than it was.”
The responses to Morgan’s recent interview on Vermont Public Radio’s “Vermont Edition” suggest that the Beats polarize as much as they ever did. Frequent VPR commentator Willem Lange called in to say Kerouac had changed his life: “I still keep a copy of On the Road under the seat of my car in Bubble Wrap, just in case,” he confided. Another caller accused the Beats of turning Americans on to drugs.
After the segment aired, Vermont poet and playwright David Budbill commented online: “The influence of the Beat writers on the future of American writing cannot possibly be overestimated.” But “Leslie in South Royalton,” a self-described “fan of the beats,” wasn’t so sure. Her three kids, she wrote, found it hard to relate to the characters in On the Road. To young people raised on ideals of “community service and sustainability,” she suggested, the midcentury champions of personal liberation seem “selfish.”
Be that as it may, Morgan doesn’t think the Beats have worn out their welcome. In fact, he says, “On the Road sells more and more copies every year. Every year there’s a new supply of 17- and 18-year-olds who get that book and read it, and it means something to them.”
But will those young Beat fans end up being flower children like Ginsberg, cynics like Kerouac, paranoids like Burroughs or eco-Buddhists like Beat poet Gary Snyder? Only time will tell.